The Hornets face challenges with several key players out but look to evaluate youth

By Chase Whitney 

December 9, 2021

Photo: Jacob Kupferman / AP

The Charlotte Hornets can barely field an NBA team right now with five players in the Covid-19 health and safety protocols. Young players James Bouknight, Nick Richards and JT Thor have stepped up in the absence of veterans, and the remaining players with NBA experience under their respective belts have played admirably. The last week has been hectic to say the least. Let’s break it down.

A week in review

In LaMelo Ball’s final game before he entered health and safety protocols (along with Terry Rozier, Jalen McDaniels, and the injured Mason Plumlee), Charlotte’s young superstar went toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokoumpo in Milwaukee with the two-time MVP just barely edging the Bucks past the Hornets. Ball finished with 36 points, five rebounds and nine assists, carrying the team down the stretch. Miles Bridges chipped in 22 and nine boards while Kelly Oubre Jr. added a 25-point performance (5-9 from 3-point range) off the bench.

The Hornets can’t seem to catch a break. During their three days off last week, four players were ruled out after testing positive for Covid-19 and practices were interrupted as the remaining players awaited their results. The Hornets still knocked off the Hawks in Atlanta with a starting five of Ish Smith, Oubre, Hayward, Bridges, and Nick Richards, thanks to Bridges’ 32 points (his sixth 30-point game of the season) and Oubre’s 28 points on 6-10 from long distance. Cody Martin put up 19 points, six rebounds and four assists off the bench with shot-creation ability he’s yet to show in a Hornets uniform. But to pour salt in the wound, Ish Smith was added to the list of Covid-19 positive Hornets after the trip to Atlanta. 

The first of the two games against Philadelphia was a bit fast-paced and exciting as the 76ers outlasted the Hornets in overtime behind 43 points, 15 boards and seven assists from Joel Embiid, who truly dominated the entirety of the game. Oubre buried six triples for the second game in a row, finishing with 35 points, five rebounds and four steals. Besides Oubre, the Hornets struggled to hit shots and there was simply no stopping Embiid once he stepped inside the 3-point line. Bouknight and Thor got real minutes for the first time this season and did quite well with them– Bouknight played within the offense and occasionally handled point guard duties while Thor flashed elite athleticism and defensive versatility.

Embiid carried the Sixers again with 32 and eight rebounds but Gordon Hayward kept Charlotte alive for the majority of the game, finishing with a season-high 31 points along with seven assists and five boards in the second close loss to Philadelphia in three days. Oubre cooled off a bit, taking 22 field goal attempts to get to 22 points while Bridges added 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. With a starting lineup of Martin, Oubre, Hayward, Bridges, and Richards, all except Richards surpassed 41 minutes in both losses.

What’s ahead for the Hornets?

Another long road trip. Charlotte hosts Sacramento on Friday night and then kicks off a six-game road swing starting Monday in Dallas and ending with the Denver Nuggets on December 23. 

Luke Walton was ousted as head coach on Nov. 21 after a 6-11 start to the season and the Kings have gone 5-3 since, including the season’s first three-game winning streak. Overall, they’re just outside of the top 10 in offense and a bottom-five defensive team, but Hornets fans might remember this season’s first matchup with the Kings on Nov. 5, when Buddy Hield hit eight three-pointers and Sacramento finished with 140 points in regulation. De’Aaron Fox leads the team in scoring with 20.8 points per game even though he’s shooting a career-worst 27.6 percent from long range.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if we’ll get a LaMelo-Luka showdown. The day of the Dallas game would mark nine days since Ball, Plumlee, McDaniels and Rozier tested positive for Covid-19. As of now, it’s safe to assume Charlotte’s backcourt will be out against the Mavericks. 

Sitting at 12-12, Dallas has a -1.2 net rating and have underwhelmed since Jason Kidd took over. Luka Doncic is top-10 in field goals made and points per game (25.6) while ranking fifth in assists per game, but he (16th percentile, +7.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) and Tim Hardway Jr. (10th percentile, +8.8 points allowed) make up one of the NBA’s worst perimeter defensive pairings, per Cleaning The Glass.

San Antonio is an interesting team these days. The dynasty days are long gone, but Gregg Popovich remains at the helm of this young roster filled with athletic wings. They’re seven games below .500, 12th in the West and management doesn’t seem bent on improving. Do they decide to move veteran players such as Jakob Poeltl, Derrick White or Thad Young this season? Dejounte Murray has emerged as a legit building block for the team, averaging 18.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game with a top-10 assist-to-turnover ratio while Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell have high potential as two-way players on the perimeter.

What to watch for this week

We’re also waiting on Covie-19 test results. James Borrego mentioned at media day that the Hornets were 100 percent vaccinated, so the restrictions that Ball, Plumlee, McDaniels, Smith and Rozier must abide by are as follows, per ESPN:

“If a player has a confirmed positive test for Covid-19, the NBA mandates a minimum of 10 days of isolation away from his team without any physical activity. After that period, a player must undergo a cardiac screening and reconditioning in order to be cleared to return to the court. A player who tests positive also could clear the protocols by returning two negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests within a 24-hour period.”

Only so much can be taken statistically from such a small sample-size, but Bouknight and Thor have both looked the part in their first taste of true NBA rotation minutes. Prior to the Hornets’ Covid spell, neither of the two rookies had logged a minute in the first half. They were thrown into the fire last week and did exceptionally well; Bouknight was hustling for rebounds and loose balls, and for a 21-year-old in his first real game(s), he’s settled into the offense well and doesn’t appear to be forcing the issue. Thor welcomed himself to the NBA by dunking on Andre Drummond for his first NBA points, and he’s shown promise since then, playing well enough to prove that he might one day be an elite frontcourt defender with floor-spacing ability. 

Check out the remaining 2021-22 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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